Bangladesh, Day 3: Liberation and loss

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We woke up early the next day to run errands, then off to the Liberation War Museum. We  spent the afternoon with friends old and new, meandering through crowded allies in Old Dhaka, and checking out local Hindu Saraswati Puja pandals (community altars).

Dhaka's Liberation War Museum documents the struggles of Bangladeshis to win political and cultural autonomy, culminating in independence in 1971. (The standard outline: when India and Pakistan gained freedom from Britain in 1947, geographically-separated but majority-Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan (then "East Pakistan" and "West Pakistan") were lumped into the common Muslim nation of Pakistan. West Pakistani leaders clamped down on Bangladesh's Hindu/Muslim hybrid language and culture, and engaged in economic exploitation. Bangladeshis fought back, first within the system, then calling for more autonomy, and finally winning independence in the face of a West Pakistani military campaign of mass repression, rape, and murder.) The Liberation War Museum is excellent, with a wide range of exhibits, and very clear paragraph-length descriptions for each object. We walked away with a PDA full of notes on names and stories to research. It's all fine and good to speak of people's struggles in impersonal terms, but the museum was effective in bringing three decades of struggle down to a human level:

  • a newspaper clipping reporting the Pakistan government's banning radio stations from broadcasting works by Bengali Nobel Prize winner (and Hindu) Rabindranath Tagore
  • an photo of a female student leader at Dhaka University, standing up to police repression
  • stories and personal articles of soldiers who died in the war
  • lovely liberation war posters, calling for pan-Bengali cultural unity across religious lines
  • photographs, and skulls, of the dead, murdered by West Pakistanis

The loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican was in our heads that day. Signage at The Liberation War Museum described Ted Kennedy's role as an ally to the Bengali people in the face of Nixon's pro-Pakistan anti-Bangladesh stance; a photograph shows him with Mother Teresa, visiting an Indian camp for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing Pakistani terror. The very previous day, we'd read an editorial in the newspaper calling on the government of Bangladesh to honor critical foreign supporters like Ted Kennedy.

It's very hard being half a world away, and seeing all the good that can be done by a lone senator from Massachusetts with a penchant for international human rights -- and then seeing that seat occupied by a man best known nationally for railing against the health care reform process. Whether we like it or not, our provincial domestic U.S. politics casts a long shadow around the world.

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